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Greece and Turkey: history of hate

The Parthenon, built in the 5th century BC, remains one of the supreme symbols of Greek nationhood
The Parthenon, built in the 5th century BC, remains one of the supreme symbols of Greek nationhood  

By CNN's Paul Sussman

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Current tensions between Greece and Turkey over illegal immigrants are merely the latest manifestation of a long history of mutual distrust and animosity between the two countries.

That history can be traced right the way back to ancient times, long before Greece and Turkey even emerged as independent states.

The region currently occupied by the two nations, existing as it does at the juncture of Europe and Asia, has for thousands of years served as a battleground between the forces of East and West.

The psyches of both peoples have in many ways been forged by this enduring sense of conflict, of being on opposite sides of a profound cultural fault line.

This is perhaps especially true of the Greeks, who have always had a strong appreciation of the exploits of their ancient ancestors in battling the (as they see it) despotic powers of the East.

The Trojan wars, for instance, and the epic 5th Century BC clashes between the Greek city states and invading Persians --culminating in the legendary Greek victories at Marathon (490 BC), Salamis (480 BC) and Plataea (479 BC) -- still retain a surprising resonance for modern Greeks.

Likewise the history of the Greek Byzantine Empire, which for many centuries stood as the only bulwark between the worlds of Islam and Christianity.

Turkish history also shaped by conflict
Turkish history also shaped by conflict  

If millennia of attrition provide the wider context for strained Greco-Turkish relations, however, its specific roots lie in more modern times.

In the 15th century the Turkish Ottoman Empire overran mainland Greece and most of the Greek Islands, initiating almost 300 years of Muslim occupation.

Although Ottoman rule, especially in the early years, was less brutal than has often been made out, it was certainly onerous, involving high taxation and occasional acts of appalling violence (30,000 Greeks were massacred when the Ottomans captured Cyprus in 1570).

The occupation, which ended with the Greek War of Independence of 1821-28, had a profound effect on the Greek people, engendering a sense of hatred and distrust of Turks that lasts to this day.

Turkish opinion, too, has been marked by the brutalities of history. The Greek War of Independence started with numerous massacres of Turkish civilians, most infamously at Tripolista in 1821, where 12,000 Turks died (the Turks responded by slaughtering 25,000 Greeks on the island of Chios).

The entire modern Turkish state, indeed, is in a sense based on anti-Greek sentiment, since its founder, Musafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), first came to power by repelling the 1919-21 Greek invasion of Asia Minor.

Today the animosity between the two peoples is played out primarily on the island of Cyprus, an independent republic until 1974 when Ankara invaded and established the Turkish Republic of Cyprus in the northeast of the country, where the population was predominantly ethnic Turkish.

The Greeks, supported by the international community, have refused to recognise the Turkish Republic.

The Turks, for their part, have refused to back down, creating a source of permanent tension in the region (not so long ago the Greek foreign minister referred to Turks as "bandits, murderers and rapists," to which the Turkish foreign minister responded by branding him a "psychopath.")

Turkey's application to join the 15-member EU has likewise highlighted ill-feeling between the two nations, with Greece, already a member, vigorously opposing any Turkish involvement.

There are signs of a very slight thawing in the relationship. When a massive earthquake hit the Turkish town of Izmit in August 1999, killing almost 2,000 people, Greek rescue teams were among the first on the scene.

When another earthquake hit Athens a month later, Turkish teams repaid the compliment by rushing to help.

While it was a hopeful sign, however, it will take a lot more than an earthquake to bring an end to the centuries of mutual antipathy and mistrust that have blighted relations between the two peoples.

• Greek Government
• Turkish Government

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